By now, all law schools are—or are about to be—fully online. My sense is that professors are mostly teaching synchronously (i.e., live) using Zoom, Webex, or some other platform. In this respect, faculty are trying their best to replicate the in-person law school classroom; in some cases, this even includes cold calling on students to recite cases. Class sizes remain as they were before the Coronavirus hit. That means that some professors are teaching in this format to 60, 80, or even 100 students.
To experts in online teaching and learning, this is not how any of this is supposed to work. Successfully moving a class online requires time, effort, and training, as this helpful post describes. And it typically requires smaller class sizes than we’re used to in legal education, although experts acknowledge that there is no magic number.
A common misconception about moving a course to an online format is that the professor merely delivers the same content in the same manner as a face-to-face classroom … just on video. Not so. Professors new to online learning often view their teaching—incorrectly—through the “lens” of face-to-face classes. In actuality, adapting a course for online learning requires starting anew with course objectives and working backwards from those outcomes the professor hopes to achieve. The steps in students’ development become “modules” (typically on a week-by-week schedule) that are thoughtfully designed to achieve smaller outcomes, like guideposts on a trail. The course is not a march through a casebook.
Each module uses the learning tools that are best designed to achieve that module’s objectives. A module may include a synchronous discussion (as Nina Kohn [Syracuse] persuasively notes) or not. Asynchronous activities, which can be completed at different times in the week, can also be effective. Pre-recorded video lectures (of no more than 15-20 minutes, since attention spans wander after that point), quizzes, discussion posts, writing assignments, readings, and creative projects (such as students creating their own narrated PowerPoints on a subject) are all arrows in the professor’s asynchronous instructional quiver. Many of these activities are themselves formative or summative assessments of students’ progress in meeting the outcomes of the modules and, in turn, the course. The key is to make deliberate, strategic choices about what mode of delivery (synchronous or asynchronous) works best for a particular module or course. Often the best courses will include a blend of the two approaches.
So let us be clear: what we’re doing right now is not best practices; it is a bandaid. It is an emergency response so that we can continue instruction in some format so that our students do not lose the entire semester.
We have a responsibility, however, to do better in the weeks ahead, not just to satisfy accreditors but as part of our obligation to provide a quality education to our students. We should embrace a culture of continuous, quality improvement. This is especially true if the current crisis continues for a significant period and requires law schools to continue to be fully online into the Fall semester.
There are things we can do in the short-term to improve teaching and learning this semester. In the coming weeks, we should:
- For faculty who are just recording and posting lectures, encourage them to move to synchronous delivery so students can ask real-time questions and otherwise participate actively.
- For faculty who are already meeting synchronously, encourage them to adopt active, rather than passive, learning activities in their virtual classrooms. Most videoconference platforms have polling or quizzing features, for instance, which can engage all students, not just those who are participating in a discussion. Get out of the mindset of looking at your online course through a face-to-face lens.
- Encourage small group interactions to spur discussion and participation. Both Zoom and Webex have “breakout” rooms, and I have become a big fan of using them to spur think-pair-share type exercises. Like polling, breakout sessions turn students into active, rather than passive, participants.
- Encourage faculty to supplement synchronous sessions with optional, asynchronous exercises, such as quizzes or discussion boards. I recommend making them optional at this point, since we do not want to overwhelm students, who are also adapting to new circumstances.
- Make ourselves reasonably available for “office hours” through drop-in Zoom or Webex sessions. Not only does this foster personal connection during this time of isolation, but these meetings also give students an opportunity to clarify points they may have missed during pre-recorded lectures or live videoconferences.
- Help each other. Having all been thrown in the deep end of the pool at the same time, we are all learning how to swim, some better than others. We can help each other to say afloat. Faculty should share tips, suggestions, and solutions to common problems with one another. As an example, several of us at my school have been struggling with playing videos through our videoconference platform because of “lag” issues. Last night, an adjunct professor came up with an ingenious, but low tech, solution. He turned his laptop (with webcam) to a secondary monitor, brought it close to the monitor, and played the video from the secondary monitor at full volume. It wasn’t perfect, but it allowed students to hear and see the video with decent quality.
I recognize that this is a difficult time for many law professors. Some may be dealing themselves with illness or adjusting to disruption at home. Some of my colleagues now have two full-time jobs: teaching and taking care of school-aged children. Therefore, in my list above, I use words like “try,” “encourage,” and “reasonably available,” not “must” or “require.” The suggestions I have offered must be adapted to each individual faculty member’s circumstances and capabilities at this time.
Nevertheless, to the extent we are able, we should all be thinking about how to get better at teaching in this new format over the next few weeks. For some, that may mean exploring many of the asynchronous tools at our disposal. For others, it may mean trying to facilitate greater discussions versus lecture. Some of the suggestions I list above require no additional time on the professor’s part. If we take these steps, the teaching taking place at the end of April should be better than that being offered now.
While we are all hopeful that things will get back to normal soon, law schools must nevertheless plan for the possibility that online teaching will need continue into the Fall (depending, of course, on how the virus progresses). What we can get away doing now on an emergency basis is not going to be acceptable to either our accreditors or our students by the Fall. They can, and should, expect a higher quality of instruction from us given the lead-up time we have until the next semester. Here, time is on our side but only if we begin planning now. The key, in my view, is training. Faculty need training on the best practices for online teaching and learning. The Quality Matters Standards and Rubric are a great place to start in terms of where we need to be (eventually) with online learning. The summer months provide an opportunity for such training and development.
Of course, someone has to develop and deliver such training. Law schools that are attached to universities can take advantage of courses that likely already exist through their universities’ centers for teaching and learning. Typically those courses include ones on Blackboard/Canvas, online pedagogy, and similar topics. Standalone law schools should consider working together to develop such courses. Training law faculty, full-time and adjuncts, on a massive scale to deliver “best practices” online teaching will require a great deal of planning to prioritize and rollout development opportunities in a smart way. That planning should take place now, even if the medium-term future is uncertain. I’ll likely have more to say, in a future blog post, on what that planning should look like.
Something else to consider for the Fall is section size. In the academic research, 20 is the recommended, outer limit for class size, and that number is for undergraduate courses. Graduate courses typically have smaller enrollments. Class size affects the ability of a professor to provide interactive experiences and feedback. The more interactive a course is, the better the learning experience for students. Faculty can successfully provide an interactive experience only to a limited number of students. This may require reconsideration of the class schedule, such as cutting back on electives so that additional, smaller sections of required or core courses can be offered while a law school is in a fully online mode.
Needless to say, these are difficult times for everyone. Adopting a continuous improvement mindset, though, will benefit all of our stakeholders, especially our students.